The firm dirt gives way to soft sand and my bike comes to a sudden, undignified stop. I get off and carry it into the shade before continuing on foot. My destination lies in front of me: one of the ten thousand temples of Bagan, the ancient Burmese city that was the site of the vanity (or piety, depending on how you look at it) project of Burma’s ancient rulers, who each felt the need to construct greater and more elaborate (or just more) temples in this remote village than their predecessors had.
Some are Hindu, some are Buddhist, many are a combination, or repurposed from one to the other. This isn’t the first one I’ve ascended today, and it won’t be the last. The method I’m using to pick my destination is to climb one, get my fill of it, and from the highest point on it that I can get to, spot a new one that looks interesting, and then try to find it on my bicycle.
This one follows the same basic plan as most of them do: vaguely pyramidal in shape, two or three levels, with a hollow interior ground floor, stairs that lead up and to the outside, then a sort of terrace on the roof, with another interior shrine in the center of that second floor. Possibly repeat again, depending on the size of the building.
This one is just two stories tall. I go inside, pausing in the shade for a moment, and then continue. The ground level is fairly plain, so after a quick circuit of it I’m ready to go up. The stairwell is blocked by a sort of tumbleweed, which I push out of the way.
I take one step and then my body realizes something is wrong. Without thinking, I throw my water bottle ahead of me, up the stairs, and slam my hands outwards, catching the walls, supporting myself with the friction between them and my hands. What looked like another simple, leaf covered step, was actually a false bottom: a pit trap!
An actual, genuine pit trap! And what’s more, as my water bottle reveals, rolls down the stairs and into the pit pushing the leaves out of the way, a spiked one! A gruesome combination of twisted metal, broken glass, and thorny bushes lines the bottom of the hole, ready to ensnare and puncture the unwary. I’m very lucky to have avoided that fate.
I push backwards and step back down into the ground floor. I reach down into the pit and retrieve my water bottle. There’s no way I’m letting this deter me; if anything, I’m more determined than ever to see what could possibly need this sort of protection.
The pit was more likely a sort of accidental occurrence than a deliberately constructed trap, though. I step carefully over it and make my way to the top of the temple, encountering no more traps. I pause and rest up there for a while, before heading back down, being careful to avoid the pit once more.
After a few hours more of this, I encounter the first other travelers I’ve seen the whole day. I’ve met a few local Burmese folks (some monks, some women selling mango with salt and chili, some children), but this pair are the first fellow travelers I’ve seen since coming to Bagan. One of them is Will Hatton, the Broke Backpacker, and this is the start of a glorious friendship. The other, Marie, is a fellow American, who is hilarious, but whose shoes I somehow keep stepping on, to my chagrin. I’m jealous of Will’s Aussie bush hat: this is before my wife gifted me my now trademark hat, and I am immediately impressed with its style and practicality.
We quickly decide to join forces, and set out for the largest of the temples in Bagan. a colossal structure known as Thatbyinnyu. At least, I think it’s Thatbyinnyu. It’s hard to tell, and it’s not like there are labels anywhere. Like all these structures, it’s got a large, flat platform halfway up, which is excellent to view sunrises and sunsets from.
This temple, being larger than the others, has more places for other structures inside of it. This includes a pair of mysterious tunnels, which Will and I investigate. He’s got a headlamp and I have a handheld torch, and pushing past spiderwebs, we crawl and crab walk our way down the short, narrow, long tunnel. Neither of us is ready for what we find: a large family of bats, sleeping during the day, but perking up now that it’s nearing night time, and given that we’ve just disturbed their resting place, screeching and flapping about and chasing us back out the tunnel.
We make it back outside with our selves intact, if not necessarily our dignity, and continue up to the top of the temple. We make it just in time to watch the sun set, joining a lone monk, who silently watches from his perch on the edge of the platform. We bow respectfully, and he smiles at us. I can’t imagine a better view.
Standing there, I notice one of my sandals is a bit uncomfortable. I look at the underside, and find a long thorn has embedded itself in the bottom: a souvenir from the pit trap earlier.
Photos are by me and people I handed my camera to. Bagan is in the Mandalay Region in central Burma. The easiest way to get to it is probably to go to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar (aka Burma, the name preferred by the parts of the populace who oppose the military dictatorship, and so the name I tend to use, though Myanmar is the official one) and then find a bus going to Bagan. Definitely rent a bicycle once you’re there.